They say there’s no smoke without fire. But in Bill Pinney’s case, there’s no smoke without fish. A haze of smoke has pervaded Bill’s life ever since 1959, when his father first attempted smoking a sea trout he’d caught in the nearby bay. Bill now runs the family business, which also includes a fish shop and restaurant, but the original old smokers are still a firm part of the household.
Bill’s father, Richard, had moved his family to sleepy Orford, on the Suffolk coast, just after the Second World War. Walking around the area in search of a house, he discovered a derelict cottage in the marshes, whose peace was a welcome contrast to the bustle of London. Looking for ways to make a living, he restored the abandoned oyster beds a few yards away and had a stab at rush weaving. Then he experimented with smoking fish.
With the help of a local blacksmith, he cobbled together some stoves, which he fuelled with green oak logs (recently cut wood that has not dried) from the Butley forests nearby. As the family sampled their first fishy feast, they realised they’d hit treasure.
A love of fishing
The Pinneys soon moved from sea trout to other fish, such as salmon, eels, kippers and mackerel. A room at the end of the house was turned into a filleting area, which in turn led to the smokehouse outside. Bill remembers, as a child, being asked to hook fish, chop logs and stoke the ever-hungry stoves whatever the weather. Even on Christmas Day.
“If the wind blew the wrong way, the house was choked with smoke,” he laughs, showing me a photograph of his late father holding a shark he once netted off the beach at Orford. “My father and I loved fishing. The smoking followed on from that.”
The methods the Pinneys use have changed little since Richard first started the business, or indeed since East Anglian fishermen first began salting and smoking fish to preserve them. “Our process is the same as would have been used 500 years ago,” says Bill. “It’s just about salt and wood.”
He shows me the steel smoke boxes that Terry Cooper, Bill’s chief smoker, feeds with whole green logs. There’s a hot smoker (which gently cooks and flavours the fish) and two slow-burning cold smokers (which dry and flavour the fish). It looks easy at first glance, but I soon see that this is a craft of the highest order. Let the fire get too hot and mackerel will split and smoked salmon will turn into cooked salmon. And when you’re dealing with fish, mistakes can be costly.
“It’s all about timing, and that takes years to learn. It’s done by eye,” says Bill. “With experience, you learn how hot to make the fire and to spot when a fish has been smoked enough. The trick is controlling the fire so that it burns at a low temperature and gives off a smoke that’s sweet. You want alcohols and ethers to be produced, not tar.”
Before being smoked, fish are treated with salt that, like the smoke, acts as a preservative. Fish such as eels and salmon are dry salted, but oily fish, such as herrings and mackerel, are soaked in brine. The next stage is cold smoking, which both dries the fish and transforms its flavour. “If you don’t cold smoke long enough, the fish will fall off the hook when you come to hot smoke it afterwards,” says Bill. “Some fish, such as smoked salmon, is not hot smoked at all. It’s cold smoked at a temperature roughly the equivalent of a summer’s day.”
Hot smoking, the next stage, adds further flavour, and is used for oily fish such as mackerel, sprats and herring. “This is effectively the cooking stage,” says Bill. “You can tell if the fish is done by the way the skin comes away and how the bones come out.”
Fish smoked this way, he warns, is not to be confused with the industrially smoked stuff. The fish that really gets Bill angry is smoked salmon which, when he started, was a niche product. “We were one of the few people in the country smoking it. But the arrival of industrially farmed salmon changed all that,” he says.
The issue, explains Bill, is water. “When you smoke fish, it loses water, which means it loses weight and therefore profit. So some industrial smokers inject salmon with a chemical that makes it absorb water, then soak it in water or brine. They then smoke the fish in computer-controlled kilns for just a few hours to prevent it losing moisture. So if the salmon you eat is flabby and tasteless, that’s why – you’re eating water. By contrast, here a 1.3kg (3lb) side of salmon will weigh 900g (2lbs) after being salted and dry smoked. But we are about quality rather than price. Our customers can taste the difference.”
Another product that has been heavily industrialised is haddock and cod. “Many consumers don’t realise, but if you see bright yellow cod or haddock, it’s probably been dip-dyed in a synthetic, smoke-flavoured dye, which gives it a yellow colour and smoky taste. It’s never been near a wood smoker.”
The fish themselves have changed, too, thanks to overfishing. Whereas at the beginning, much of the fish that Bill smoked was locally caught, now it’s only sprats and a few herrings that he both catches and smokes. Freshwater silver eels, for instance, for which the Pinneys are famous, used to be caught locally in the dykes using fyke nets, but around five years ago Bill had to start buying them in from a specialist dealer.
But if fish stocks have diminished, bureaucracy has done the opposite. “When we started, there was no paperwork, licences or quotas,” says Bill. “Now it’s the most bureaucratic business you can imagine. If you were to start fishing today, you’d need a degree to understand the regulations.”
Fortunately, the pleasures still outweigh the downsides. “Fish, salt and sea all seem to run in the family veins,” he says. “I still go out fishing with my son George whenever I can.” The herrings and sprats go off to the smoker, while the rest ends up in the family restaurant on the village square run by Bill’s wife.
Bill then excuses himself to tend his hungry charge. “Others worry about feeding the dog. In my case, it’s our smokeboxes. They seek constant attention. But life wouldn’t be the same without them.”
THIS ARTICLE ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN ISSUE 44 OF COUNTRYFILE MAGAZINE. TO NEVER MISS AN ISSUE SUBSCRIBE TODAY!